Roaming Free: Veal, the Controversial Red Meat
Probably the most controversial red meat, veal has drawn its fair share of criticism. The male calves of dairy cows are sequestered at birth and kept in holding pens that limit their movement as well as consequent “muscle building” that would firm up the meat (veal is prized for its tenderness).
While veal has long been an important staple of European cooking, the origin of veal production in the U.S. is a direct result of the strong dairy industry. As long as there is demand for milk, dairy cows must produce it on a consistent basis, so they must give birth every year. Previously, if the offspring were male, he would be killed immediately since he has no value on a dairy farm and his Holstein heritage is not suitable for meat production.
Naturally, it can be argued that letting the calves live “in a cage” for a few months longer before facing the same fate may be equally if not more inhumane. However, activists have made some progress improving their welfare: 2008 legislation in California established more humane practices for calves raised for veal (as well as egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs), ensuring their ability to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. Some states have already established similar laws, and many others will surely follow suit.
Also, there has been a recent push for “humanely raised veal,” or meat from calves that are allowed to pasture (eat grass) and/or eat grain and roam in pens with other animals. It can also be labeled meadow, red, rose, pastured, grass-fed, free-range and suckled. Skeptics say the meat loses tenderness, while others appreciate its richer flavor and “guilt-free” consumption. Pasture-raised veal can be hard to find, but we’ve listed a few vendors below. You can also check out your local farmers’ market for potential vendors.
Bob veal: calves that are selected for slaughter shortly after birth when they weigh 150 pounds; can have a bland flavor
Formula-fed veal: tender meat, light pink in color, “maturity” reached at 18-20 weeks
Grain- or hay-fed: slightly less tender meat, darker color, possibly some marbling, “maturity” reached at five to six months of age